By Laura da Silva
Throughout the past year African countries have dominated the U.K.’s notorious red list. The harsh travel bans affecting countries unfortunate enough to find themselves upon the infamous list have caused severe economic losses, as tourism sectors have suffered and trade has been hampered. Although the U.K. insists the list has been objective, one cannot help but notice that African countries have endured long stays whilst wealthier European and North American countries have managed (for the most part) to escape the list’s grasp. African countries are simply left wondering “why is it that when it comes to vaccines, Africans are last in the queue, but when it comes to travel sanctions, we’re first?”
Despite the exploitive personal cost of a 10-day hotel quarantine in the U.K. (around £2,285), the most direct cost of complete travel bans on African countries is the devastation this causes to tourism across the continent. When considering that for many African countries tourism constitutes a significant proportion of GDP – such as over 15% of total GDP in Botswana – knocks to the tourism industry have significant ramifications for African economies. Moreover, the U.K. market contributes a large percentage of this tourism revenue, especially in Southern Africa. One travel agency based in South Africa reports that revenues from U.K. travellers have decreased 81% because of the pandemic. Whilst a survey of 390 Southern African operators revealed that just over £50 million was lost through travel cancellations in the 48 hours after South Africa’s red listing at the end of November. Hence, South African GDP has suffered greatly as a result of the consistent travel bans. Consequently, the losses to revenue in the tourism sector have had a huge effect on the staggering rate of Southern African joblessness. Importantly, the increasing rate of unemployment in these developing countries is particularly concerning as these countries do not have widespread social security schemes, so they are unable to deliver the safety net that government handouts in the U.K. provide. This means that increases in unemployment in Southern Africa translates to thousands of families going hungry.
What’s more, the arbitrary implementation of travel bans on African countries and the detrimental effects these have on African economies, creates enormous uncertainty in the performance of these economies which deters foreign investment. Africa has already faced huge knocks to foreign investment as health challenges and cyclical lockdowns have battered the continent’s GDP. In 2020 when many African countries dominated the U.K.’s red list, foreign direct investment (FDI) flows to the continent decreased by 16% ($7 billion). Moreover, the UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2021 showed that commodity-dependent countries were affected more severely by decreases in FDI due to the pandemic than non-resource-based economies.
Because the economic effects of complete travel bans are so harsh, it is important to establish whether the red listing of countries is fair. In September, before the ‘traffic light system’ was abandoned, sub-Saharan African countries alone made up 41% of the red list (that’s 22 out of the total 54 countries on the list). In other words, 44% of the countries making up the sub-Saharan region were on the red list. Before this in April 2021, 19 out of the 39 countries appearing on the list were African (49%), and interestingly no European countries were featured.
The criteria for landing a country on the U.K.’s red list has never been specified, and overall the U.K. government lacks transparency in the decision process for implementing complete travel bans against countries and entire regions. Despite this, speculative reports suggest that the U.K. government’s justification for putting travel bans in place include: the presence of known virus variants, the presence of high-risk variants that are under investigation, and the high prevalence of COVID-19 within the country. The robustness of contact-tracing systems, vaccination rates, and death rates have also been suggested as potential red list criteria. Yet, what the specific criteria are remains a guessing-game. Using scientific criteria to identify high-risk countries and take appropriate precautionary measures is sensible. However, it seems as though the ‘criteria’ of the U.K.’s red list has been applied to countries unequally. For example, whilst many African countries have remained under complete travel bans for months, the U.S. bore only a brief stint on the red list back in July 2020 despite infamously high infection rates throughout the past year and a half. Many have justified the harsher treatment of African countries by pointing to low vaccination rates throughout the continent. Yet, it is hardly fair to penalise specifically low-income countries for low vaccination rates when vaccine hoarding and empty donation promises by the U.K. and other wealthy countries are much to blame for these low vaccination rates.
A closer look into the countries that have been placed on the red list reveals its randomness. The discrepancy between the U.K.’s treatment of its wealthier trading partners in contrast to lower-income African countries is quite clear. More African countries have borne longer and more frequent complete travel bans than European and North American countries. The graph below shows the daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people of France, Germany, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa for the beginning four months of 2021. Despite South Africa having significantly lower cases than these wealthier countries, the country was on the U.K.’s red list for this entire period whilst none of the other countries faced travel bans to such a devastating extent.
Source: Our World in Data
Comparing African countries that have been on the red list to those that haven’t presents a peculiar case too. In September 2021, Sudan found itself on the red list whilst South Sudan did not. This is strange because at the time the countries had a similar number of cases, but South Sudan had higher rate of daily new cases per million – 1.18 compared to Sudan’s 0.23 – and lower total vaccination – 0.84% compared to 3.34% in Sudan. Thus showing the lack of objective and scientific criteria in the U.K.’s decision to add countries to the red list.
However, the greatest demonstration of the injustice of the U.K.’s red list was the hasty complete ban against all travel from Southern Africa after South African scientists reported the discovery of the omicron variant. Although at the time there was no information on the severity of the new strain, or whether current vaccinations offered protection against the variant, the U.K. added several Southern African countries to its red list within hours of the South African report. This was followed by complete bans on travel from the red-listed Southern African countries by the U.S. and tens of European countries as they followed the lead of the U.K. – showing the shear influence of the red list in dictating global precedent. These rushed travel bans were, rightly, met with outcry by African countries and the WHO, who called the travel bans “unjustified” and pointed out the small number of cases of the new variant among the banned countries. Nigeria called its move to the red-list“travel apartheid”, as at the time it had only three reported omicron cases compared to more than 300 in the UK, 38 in Portugal, and 32 in Denmark. The discrimination was clear and it was infuriating.
The sudden ban hit South Africa’s economy immediately as the rand slumped as much as 2% against the dollar overnight, and hospitality stocks plummeted as investors became nervous. The news of the new variant and the misinformed narrative of its African origin triggered a wave of selling of risk assets in emerging markets as investors “sought safety” in the U.S., euro zone government bonds, and the Japanese Yen. These financial hits caused by the U.K.’s panic meant that The South African Reserve Bank was forced to raise interest rates for the first time in three years with tightening effects continuing into 2022 – further extending the country’s struggle for sustained economic growth. In terms of the effects of this red listing on tourism, the ban could not have come at a worse time as Southern African was beginning its busiest season for tourism. After successfully fighting for complete travel bans to be lifted in October, South African tourism companies now faced huge and immediate losses. Shares in Sun International lost almost 6% of market value, shares in City Lodge Hotel dropped 15%, and shares in Tsogo Sun went down 14% – all in the first day of the complete travel ban. A smaller tourism company, MoAfrika Tours, lost over $30,000 in that one day due to cancelled December bookings. These cancellations and huge monetary losses translate directly into higher unemployment, and more families unable to eat; and with South African unemployment at an all-time high of 34.9%, there are already a considerable number of South Africans struggling for survival. As economist Dawie Roodt has said, “the biggest killer out there is not a virus or TB, or AIDS or anything, the biggest killer out there is poverty.”
It is now apparent that the omicron variant did not originate in Southern Africa as at the time there were already cases of the variant in the U.S. and throughout Europe – these countries simply failed to identify the presence of the new variant before the South Africans. Yet, the damage of the red list has already been done. Three and a half weeks of an unjustified complete travel ban caused irreputable damage to African economies, inflicted hardship on millions of Africans, and did nothing to prevent the global spread of the omicron variant. When will Western countries learn that as Antonio Guterres, chief of the UN, states travel bans “are not only deeply unfair and punitive, they are ineffective”?
It is clear that through the haphazard implementation of its red list, the U.K. has been playing with the livelihoods of many African countries, and deciding, with a change of colour, whether a country shall endure more economic hardship or whether they deserve some relief. As Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations, points out, the issue of African countries being frequently listed on the red list is a symptom of the bigger issue in which Western countries continue to disregard the expertise of Africans and display clear paternalism and prejudice in their interactions with African nations. Pandor states, “When you see information on the UK’s infection rate published by their government, you take that as factual. [South Africa] similarly publishes information on a daily basis. If the UK does not regard this information as factual, then there’s a much deeper problem.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.